Which drives McMansions: supply or demand?

Thomas Frank argued last week that America has a system that enables McMansions but another commentator suggests McMansions reflect the desires of Americans:

Still, it fascinates — are not horror films and comedies blockbusters too? — and, lest we snark too much, in this case on McMansions, let us remember these objects reflect consumers’ demand — our collective taste — not the other way around.

And just as soon as I try and boast of some superlative insight or immunity to things and stuff myself, I will have thrown a stone at a glass house — even if it is a two-story Palladian window, even if it’s draped in Pepto-mauve and installed over an entry door — and I bet a crumpled buck you will have too. I say we observe, look for the humor reflected therein (it’s there) and continue to try and learn from our own selves.

Classic question: do Americans buy McMansions because the system supplies them and makes them possible or do they exist because the demand is there from American residents?

This question is not a new one in the field of studying suburbs. On one hand, some argue that suburbs (and McMansions by proxy) exist because this is what Americans want. Joel Kotkin argues that Americans vote with their feet and when given the opportunity, will tend to choose more space and freedom in the suburbs (and the Sunbelt). Jon Teaford says in his book The American Suburb: The Basics that Americans tend to desire more local control and space to be individuals, traits that work well in suburbs. In contrast, some would argue the other side. Suburbs had to be sold to Americans; compare this to European desires to be closer to the central city. Suburbs were constructed by developers who wanted to make money and had to drum up demand. Frank’s argument echoes those of James Howard Kunstler who suggests the suburbs are a subsidized project – often through government action and money – that hollowed out our cities.

As a sociologist, I would argue both sides of the equation are present though we tend to emphasize the demand side in American discourse without realizing how the supply side is shaped. Sure, some Americans may want McMansions but where do these desires come from? Why would they choose to spend their money on a certain kind of large home rather than buying a smaller place in a more urban area or spending more on other luxury goods? Take the example of highways: Americans did take to the automobile quickly but major systems of roads and highways also arose in part because of lobbying efforts from motorist and industry groups, governments decided to spend relatively more money on roads than mass transit, and certain restrictions made it difficult for streetcars and other mass transit to compete (see Kenneth Jackson in Crabgrass Frontiers for more details). Consumer desires don’t simply come out of nowhere; they are shaped by social forces.

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